History of St John’s Chapel at Pulau Bukom – Part 1

HISTORY OF THE PARISH OF ST JOHN THE APOSTLE ON PULAU BUKOM

A hand-written journal on the History of the Parish of St John the Apostle on Pulau Bukom was discovered within the storage cabinets of the Archbishop’s House.  While its author is still unknown, the written account preserves an invaluable record of a little-known aspect of the history of the Catholic Church in a quiet little outpost of Singapore.

The Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore was also fortunate enough to locate and record the oral histories of two individuals:  Gregory Han, who was born on the island, was an altar server, and received his first Holy Communion at the chapel; and Joseph Tay, a young Shell employee whose first child was born and baptised on Bukom.  Through the lens of their Catholic identity, their recollections bring a personal touch to the official record of events and photos, capturing the human drama from a bygone era, as well as the immaterial costs of development which eventually consigned the Chapel of St John the Apostle to the abyss of history.

Early beginnings

Located 5.5 km southwest of mainland Singapore, the offshore island of Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to Singaporeans as the place where the Shell oil refinery is located. However, as recently as 50 years ago, Pulau Bukom was an island with a vibrant local community and even had a Catholic chapel – the Chapel of St John the Apostle, alongside other amenities and landmarks. While the Chapel was only completed in 1958, Mass had been celebrated on the island since 1948 by Father Fox, the Port Chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea. Initially celebrated only on weekdays for both residents and sailors, regular Sunday Mass began to be held as the number of Catholics on the island gradually increased. During these initial years, Mass was celebrated in classrooms due to the lack of a proper house of worship.

Joseph Tay was a young Shell employee working and living at Bukom. He became friends with Joseph Tan who would later be appointed as Chairman of the Catholic Committee, and was introduced to his sister whom he later married. He recalls that the Catholics on the island were a mix of Eurasians and Chinese, many of whom were from the Hougang and Upper Serangoon area. “It was quite pleasant actually, very friendly and we mix pretty well”.

In 1955, Father Marcel Wille from the Scheut Mission was asked to take over Fr Fox’s role in serving the Catholics on Pulau Bukom. Having been appointed the Chaplain for sailors in London while on home leave, Fr Fox was unable to return to Singapore as he had hoped to. In the same year, Fr Wille began teaching Catechism to the children on the island, with five children making their First Holy Communion at the beginning of 1956.

The Search for a Home: 3rd Time Lucky

With the initiation of regular Sunday Masses on the island by 1954, the Catholic community sought to request the management of Royal Dutch Shell for a chapel to be built so that Mass could be celebrated. This request was denied by Shell on the basis that the community was too small to warrant such an undertaking, and that a new request could be made when their numbers hit 50.

Gregory Han was born on the island, baptised at the chapel and later became an altar server. He remembers the small Catholic community as a close-knit one . . .

“I grew up in 44 Rose Lane. From east to west can walk. But also one bus. Five cents. No bus stop lah. It stops wherever you want it to stop. My father’s cousin, John Chia, cousin-in-law Francis Chia, John Chan, Mr and Mrs Wee, even my primary school teacher, my kindergarten teacher, we all living nearby. Close network. We children all play together”.  

“My mum used to wash clothes outside at the washing point. So she can talk, talk, talk, with friends. Further down, there was the Nunis family. The father, Mr Nunis, he had a pet eagle. We would go over to see the eagle. He would say, ‘This is my pet’. So frightening ah!”.

By 1956, the community had grown to include 150 members under the stewardship of Fr Wille and a second request was made to Shell. Having no reason to dismiss it, this request was granted by the company. The Catholic community would finally have a proper house of worship on the island! Delighted, a committee led by Mr Joseph Tan was formed to head the planning and construction of the new chapel. However, this joy was short-lived as the outbreak of the Suez Crisis in October brought to a halt all building plans, indefinitely delaying the construction of the chapel.

Undeterred, a third request was submitted to the company a year later. While the green light was given, it was not all smooth sailing. The committee was unable to persuade the company to construct a separate chapel for the Catholic community. Instead, this new chapel located on Bungalow Hill was to be shared with the Anglican community. Nonetheless, the Catholic community was excited that their long hoped for chapel would soon materialize. Though small in number, they were not lacking in enthusiasm and initiative, quickly rallying together to provide the necessary furniture and furnishings.  The chapel was completed in December 1958, and its doors were opened for the first time for Christmas Mass.

Finally . . . the house of the Lord is consecrated

 A few weeks later on 4 January 1959, Archbishop Olcomendy was invited to the island for the consecration of the new chapel to St John the Apostle. Having been miraculously saved from a boiling barrel of oil through God’s intervention, it seemed only fitting that St John be the patron saint of the chapel on Pulau Bukom, in the hope that he would intercede for the protection of residents against oil-related accidents.

Congregation at the consecration Mass

Gregory Han recalls Sunday Mass at the Chapel with great fondness. His father, Michael Han was a Church warden and his mother Cecilia Han was an active volunteer.

“My Dad had a very good voice. He sang alto. In Latin. It was Latin Mass. After Mass we don’t just say bye-bye and go home. We spend at least another hour in Church. One hour before, one hour after. We just sit quietly, say our prayers. No sound. Even got kids, the kids don’t run here and there. We very obedient. And we go to Church, we dress our Sunday best. Not like now.”

When asked if he could remember what the Anglican chapel was like, Gregory Han replied “I didn’t really go in. I just had one look . . . very plain lah. Different from ours”.

The Archbishop delivering the Gospel during the consecration Mass. The interior furnishings were provided by the community. At the back, a thick curtain acts as a partition between the Catholic and Anglican chapels. This curtain was a dark purple in colour and was handsewn by Mrs Cecilia Han.

 

With the chapel built, the Catholic community on the island thrived. Sunday morning masses were well-attended, and special occasions, such as feast days and solemnities, were often marked by the whole community with a procession around the church grounds. These festivities would often include community breakfasts and tea parties, which helped foster a familial and close-knit Catholic community on the island.

This familial relationship within the community was also extended to Fr Wille whose zeal and love for his parishioners had endeared him to many. Fr Wille’s efforts in getting to know the families through social visits, and his willingness to go out of his way to attend to their pastoral needs made him immensely popular and respected amongst the community.

Gregory remembers Fr Willie’s generosity. “He took us, all the altar servers, ten of us, to see the movie ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ about Jesus of Nazareth. It was at Lido”.  He also remembers a particular trait of Fr Willie’s, “He had a good voice. Very powerful. Everyone in the chapel can hear. No need mic.”

Joseph Tay also attests to how beloved Fr Willie was to his little flock on the island . . . “I found him a likeable person. All the families, practically everyone there liked him.”

Joseph Tay (right) with Fr Willie (left) and Fr Scott (centre)

 

Corpus Christi Feast Days

Gregory Han on Corpus Christi . . . “During Corpus Christi, my Dad would be leading the flower girls. Clap, clap, throw. Clap, clap, throw . . . they’ll walk in front, then he is behind.”

On being an altar server . . .  “I didn’t choose. I was picked! My parents said to the priest, “Father, ok, we got one boy for you”

The procession route for the Feast of Corpus Christi would usually pass by the Bukom English School. The Bukom English School was originally located on Pulau Bukom but was later relocated to the smaller island of Bukom Kechil and further away from the oil tanks, as a safety precaution. Gregory Han recalls . . .  “So yáll in Singapore, you go to school, take bus. I take sampan. We got to wait for high tide, pay 10 cents per trip.”

There was one particular incident which still remains vividly etched in his mind . . .
“The refinery is just next door to the school . . . one day we had . . . explosions. Kapong! Not only one tank you know, Bom! Bom!. We thought si liao, got war come already. My Mum come running to the school, find me, drag me. Run, run, go back home, pack. There was sirens, all panic lah! Run here, there . . . Of course my Dad was with the refinery. So he came back, said ‘Okay, safe. No need pack, no need run’ .  . . Why? What happened? . . . ‘No lah, some oil leak, so explosion. But safe, safe, no need panic’  So we didn’t run, put everything back, go back as per normal”.

First Communion

In 1964 there were four boys and four girls who took their First Holy Communion. Gregory Han is in the front row, third from left.  His father  Michael Han, who was one of the wardens of the Chapel is in the back row, first from left. His mother Cecilia, who sewed the chapel curtains is third from left.


End of Part 1 – the story of St John’s Chapel on Pulau Bukom continues. For Part 2 click here